How to Clean and Sanitize Old Wood

A white living room with furniture made from pallets.
What You'll Need
Safety glasses and work gloves
Workbench or pair of sawhorses
Liquid wood soap
Stiff scrub brush
Wire brush
Tarp or old sheet
Power sander (optional)

Repurposing old wood is a big trend in DIY design, but it’s not always safe. Sometimes, it’s a really bad idea because old wood can be full of pests and hidden dangers. But when you clean and sanitize your old wood the right way, there’s no limit to what you can do. Here's how to treat it properly prior to using it for your projects.

Remove the Dangerous Stuff

A man pulling nails out of a pallet.

Before you start cleaning your wood, get rid of the stuff that might end up hurting you. Go over all your wood pieces from front to back to pull out any old nails, tacks, or staples that may be present. Get rid of any hanging chunks of wood and anything with sharp edges that may impede you when you try to clean the wood. Pliers work well when it comes to removing staples, tacks, and other small pieces of metal.

Start Scrubbing

You'll need a big, open space to work in. This project can get somewhat messy with all the water and sawdust, so it's best to work outside in a sunny area. Wear a hat and eye protection to keep yourself shaded and safe. Lay all your wood pieces out, preferably suspended above the ground on a workbench, table, or even just a couple of sawhorses.

Spray down completely with a hose one side of all the wood pieces. Fill a bucket with warm, soapy water. Any gentle liquid wood soap will work. With a stiff brush, scrub the top side of all the wood to remove dirt and grime. A good overall scrubbing will do because there are many more steps to follow. Wet and scrub each side of wood, and you can proceed immediately to the next step in the process. For particularly stubborn spots, you may need a tough wire brush.


To truly sanitize the wood and get it as clean as possible, you will need to pressure wash it. If your wood pieces are on top of a surface or sawhorse, remove it and lay it out flat on a tarp or sheet. Pressure wash one side, then flip the wood and wash the other. You'll want the wood flat on the ground, because the pressure washing process may knock pieces of wood right off a raised surface.

Once all the wood is pressure washed, place the pieces back on the raised surface to allow them to dry. This is where the sun will start to help you. Place all the wood flat with one side up, and let this side dry completely before you flip all the pieces of wood over to dry the rest.


A power sander being used on a wood pallet.

If you want that old wood to look and feel new again, sand it down. After the wood is thoroughly clean and dried, use a power sander to lightly skim over the surface of the wood on both sides. This will leave you with a smooth, clean piece of wood to work with. Wear safety glasses while working with your power sander.


Before you start staining your wood and using it for your next DIY project, take a minute to treat it. Old wood could be a beacon to pests and other problems you don't want in your home, but treating the wood will ensure that it's clean and safe for your use. You can easily make your own Borax solution to do this. The ratio is about 3 cups of Borax to 1 gallon of warm water. Paint this mixture directly onto your wood with a sponge. Wear gloves and eye protection for your own safety, and stay outside so you have plenty of fresh air. The Borax will kill any existing pests in the wood and prevent future infestation.

After your wood is treated, you want to let it dry thoroughly for at least six days before you begin using it for your DIY projects. Once your wood is cleaned, sanitized, and treated, it's practically brand new wood again.